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Mother fears sect's hold over daughter

Fundamentalist group from Bountiful, B.C., is building an isolated compound in Texas

By JANE ARMSTRONG
Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 30, 2004 - Page A3

VANCOUVER -- Susie Johnson had been missing more than a month when the young woman called home to Canada to talk with her worried mother, Jane Blackmore. She was all right and God was blessing her, Ms. Johnson said, and she was begging Ms. Blackmore to stop tracking her down.

But Ms. Blackmore could hear the strain in her daughter's voice. Finally, the young woman said: "Mother, my time is up. I have to go now." Her husband, Ben Johnson, got on the line and warned his mother-in-law that God did not want her to find Ms. Johnson and their three young sons.

It wasn't the first time Ms. Johnson, 23, had been spirited away in the name of God. Born into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, a breakaway Mormon offshoot in Bountiful, B.C., Susie was taken by her father at age 17 to Salt Lake City, Utah, to marry Mr. Johnson, a man she was introduced to just five minutes before the ceremony. Her hometown community in the B.C. Interior, where polygamy is practised and girls are married off as young as 15, is now the focus of a provincial investigation probing allegations that girls are trafficked across the border to U.S. communes in Utah and Arizona. The B.C. probe is also looking at complaints that racism is taught at the provincially funded schools and plural wives claim to be single mothers to collect welfare.

Now there are fears that the sect, under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, considered a prophet by some, has embarked on a more secretive -- and potentially dangerous -- path. Ms. Blackmore believes her daughter and her three young boys have been moved to a walled commune under construction in rural Texas. The fortress compound near Eldorado has prompted alarm among local authorities who say the group bears troubling similarities to the infamous Branch Davidian sect of David Koresh, whose compound near Waco, Tex., was the scene of a horrific standoff that killed 84 people.

"Everyone who goes to these compounds is completely cut off from everybody that they've known their whole lives," Ms. Blackmore said. "They're not allowed to communicate with anyone. No phone calls, no letters, no nothing. Completely cut off. Complete isolation."

It's believed that a rift in the church, combined with a raft of state investigations into the church's activities, prompted the sect to build the Texas refuge for its leader and a select group of followers. Mr. Johnson, 28, Susie's husband, is among the group of devoted loyalists. Mr. Jeffs has told followers that the compound is a place for followers to be "lifted up." Ms. Blackmore said the words have the ring of an Armageddon-style event, such as a mass suicide.

Authorities in Eldorado have the same fears. They're alarmed at the rapid construction of the secretive compound, where women and girls wear ankle-length Colonial-style dresses and the four-metre-tall fence is topped with barbed wire. About 30 people live in the commune and up to 200 are expected.

In a telephone interview, Sheriff David Doran said the new landowners at first told authorities they were building a corporate hunting ranch. They later confessed it was a church retreat when confronted with aerial photos that revealed a town-like grid with up to 10 buildings under construction.

"You bet there's a concern," Mr. Doran said when asked about comparisons to Waco. But he stressed that the group has a constitutional right to practise its religion and live where it chooses.

In the meantime, the sheriff said his plans to keep tabs on the sect's activities by talking often with the group and paying regular visits.

Rodney Parker, a lawyer based in Salt Lake City who has represented the group, said accusations on both sides of the border are unfounded. He said church members who move to the Texas retreat are free to come and go as they please.

"People go there because they choose to," Mr. Parker said. "It's really easy to leave."

Back in B.C., Ms. Blackmore disagreed. She said leaving a church like the FLDS is a complicated, wrenching process that can mean cutting ties with family members for good.

Ms. Blackmore was the first and only legal wife to Winston Blackmore, who was bishop of Bountiful until he lost a bitter power struggle with Mr. Jeffs. Mr. Blackmore went on to father 80 children with 25 so-called celestial wives.

Ms. Blackmore eventually divorced Mr. Blackmore, but five of her seven children still live in the valley community, located about 100 kilometres west of the Alberta boundary near the U.S. border.

Today, Ms. Blackmore lives in nearby Cranbrook and works as a midwife for the women of Bountiful. Because of her ties to the community, she is reluctant to criticize it. When asked her opinion of polygamy, she replied: "If I agreed with it, I wouldn't have left it."

Ms. Blackmore last saw her daughter in the summer of 2003 when she travelled to Colorado City, Ariz., a cloistered town that is headquarters of the FLDS and where Ms. Johnson and her family settled.

During the visit, Ms. Johnson who was six months pregnant, cried frequently, but said nothing disloyal about the church.

Ms. Blackmore said she has notified police in Canada and the United States, but there is little authorities can do because Ms. Johnson isn't a minor.

Ms. Blackmore said her daughter can be easily manipulated.

"I've been involved in this way of life for a long time," she said with a sigh. "The courage has been taken out of people. It's because they've been taught all their lives, and they do believe, that if they disagree or disassociate themselves with what is considered the norm, that they will go to hell and there's no recourse for them except eternal damnation.

"As much as it may seem like hell on Earth, they can be persuaded that eternal damnation is worse."

 

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